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Fred Herzog: Photographs

By Fred Herzog, D. Coupland, S. Milroy, J. Wall Fred

Review By Bill Jeffries

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 144-45

Vancouver photographer Fred Herzog has rapidly emerged from photographic obscurity over the past decade and now, after almost sixty years of picturing the Vancouver scene, finally has the book that he, and his images, deserve. Herzog has reportedly taken over 100,000 photographs since 1953, mainly Kodachrome slides. It is his use of colour slide film that distinguishes his urban street photography from that of other documentarians of the post-war era. Herzog was not actually the first to adopt Kodachrome. Its initial use came in the period from 1938 to 1948 when several Farm Security Administration photographers in the U.S. documented the rural American scene in colour. By the 1950s and 1960s slide shows were easy to do, but making good Kodachrome prints was an issue until Cibachrome was perfected in the late 1970s. 

A decade ago the Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Committee, and subsequently its curators, were alerted to Fred Herzog’s existence. This led to the 2007 VAG Herzog exhibition, with its catalogue going into three printings, and then the Equinox Gallery representing Herzog’s work. The success of his exhibitions, as well as catalogue and print sales, paved the way for Fred Herzog: Photographs, which is beautiful enough to be a reasonable substitute for, and alternative to, owning the prints themselves.

The c. 180 images here are the largest representation of Herzog in print to date and all but 28, by my count, are of Vancouver; the others show us the Herzogian eye in Mexico, San Francisco, Saint John’s and Portland, among other places. The comparisons between cities are intriguing, with similarities in Herzog’s “eye” revealing continuity in his approach, and the differences between places often not looking as great as one might expect.

Photographically, Herzog falls between the Pictorialist practice of the pre-war period and the “New Topographics” that emerged in the 1970s; his key affinity is with the American documentary photographers working for the Farm Security Administration. If John Vanderpant was both Vancouver’s best Pictorialist and our best proto-modernist (think of Charles Sheeler’s photographs), Herzog, by contrast, is linked to, in addition to the FSA, New Yorkers like Sid Grossman and Dan Weiner, the Chicago School (Yashiro Ishimoto, Harry Callahan), or Walker Evans and Ralph Steiner and their ways of capturing and carving urban space with a camera.

The book has essays by Douglas Coupland (Vancouver was filthy back then), Jeff Wall (the city was wonderful back then, and the current city of glass terrible), Sarah Milroy (framed by the insight that Herzog “views humanity with an eye that is unsentimental yet deeply affectionate – a delicate balance of salt and sweet”), and Claudia Gochmann (“Herzog’s work exists between the two poles of classic documentary project and emerging possibilities of the colour medium.”). All four essays illuminate Herzog’s world, but it is Jeff Wall’s that stands out because of his critique of Vancouver as it is today. Speaking of the evolution of the city that is his home, he says: “what replaced those objects of affection are objects that cannot elicit that kind of feeling because they do not contain it.” Wall thinks that we probably can’t have a photographer like Fred Herzog now, because of the change in the make-up of the city. For Wall there was “Until 1970 …something called old Vancouver”… with “wide streets free of heavy automobile traffic” that were one of the minor miracles of this city when it was on the cusp of becoming the developer’s dream world that it has been ever since.

Herzog’s 100,000+ images of Greater Vancouver need to be seen. The sub-text of this book is that there is a crying need for the digitization of all those pictures Herzog deems worthy of reproduction. Those images are our most significant trove of local photographic colour; a publically accessible catalogue of at least 50,000 would provide an extraordinary public benefit, while giving Vancouverites something to discuss into the deep future. The appetite for the “selected-so-far” Herzog images seems insatiable; the question is, what about the other 99,000+ photographs? Digitization is the only way realize Douglas Coupland’s idea in the book: Herzog is “… a man who… set out to document transient moments with the expectation that they contained the eternal.” The world Herzog pictured is now largely gone, replaced by a taller “city of glass,” to use Coupland’s own phrase, so whatever was imagined to be eternal has proven to be anything but. Hence the serious need for a digitization project that matches Herzog’s seriousness about the state of the world.

Fred Herzog: Photographs
Fred Herzog, with contributions by Douglas Coupland, Sarah Milroy, and Jeff Wall
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011 224pp $60